December 5, 2008
One of the most important roles academics play as mentors is teaching their trainees how to write effectively, whether in science, the humanities, or whatthefuckever discipline. As soon as I see the first piece of writing produced by a new trainee in my lab, within seconds I either breathe a tremendous sigh of relief, or begin to cry forlornly.
It’s all about being able to write a decent sentence. If a trainee can write a decent English sentence that means what they want it to mean, then they can be taught to structure sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into papers, grants, etc. But if they can’t write a decent English sentence, I know to get ready for some serious hand-wringing and pulling out of my own hair. Because by the time people have graduated college, if they don’t know how to write a decent English sentence, there is little hope that they can learn.
I have read sentences written by some of my trainees that literally suck meaning out of the universe. They have negative information content. On one occasion, I crossed out an entire paragraph written by one of my trainees and commented beside it, “This is so wrong in so many different ways, I don’t even know what to say.”